50 years later, why is the report on the Attica prison riot still sealed?

(AP Photo, File)

The terror attack of 9/11 isn’t the only dreadful moment in American history marking an anniversary this week. Fifty years ago, on September 9, 1971, prisoners rioted and took over the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. While most of the prison was retaken by the end of the day, more than one thousand inmates held 39 guards and prison employees as hostages in a standoff that lasted for five days. Finally, guards and police launched a raid to retake the rest of the compound. Ten hostages and 29 inmates died during the ensuing gun battle and nearly 90 others were injured.

I was only in middle school at the time and lived a few hours away from Attica. I can still recall how it was virtually the only story on the evening news for more than a week and the photos and video coming out of that debacle were horrifying. When it was finally over, an investigation into both the riot and the assault that finally ended it was launched. The investigation stretched out for four years, culminating in the production of the investigators’ findings which went on to be known as “the Meyer report.” It was three volumes in length containing more than 600 pages, but only the first volume was released to the public. The other two were sealed. In 2005, in response to a freedom of information request, a small portion of the second volume was released, containing only forty pages, many of which contained redactions. The details of what went on during the retaking of the prison were disturbing, to say the least. The rest of the Meyer report remains sealed to this day. (USA Today)

A National Guard soldier at Attica saw “guards beat inmates on medical carts with clubs, saw a prison doctor pull an inmate off a cart and kick him in the stomach” and heard a civilian “who appeared to be in charge” refuse to allow a National Guard physician to “set up a field hospital on prison ground.”

These claims appear in documents released Thursday from the state Attorney General’s Office, portions of the so-called Meyer report that have been sealed since 1975. The report consisted of three volumes; the first volume was released in 1975 and the other two were sealed.

Last year, a Buffalo-based state Supreme Court justice ordered the release of the remaining volumes, but directed the Attorney General’s Office to redact grand jury information. What the Attorney General’s Office released Thursday were only 46 pages — some partly redacted — while nearly 400 pages still remain closed to the public.

The Attica prison riot became a touchstone for liberals in the early days of national calls for prison reform. The rioting prisoners were sometimes described as “political prisoners” who were “protesting” the poor conditions in the prison. And from all of the descriptions that were given to the press, it’s difficult to argue that conditions in the prison were anything but awful. At the same time, however, the prisoners did engage in an unlawful riot, killing both guards and prisoners in the process. Of course, the tactics used by the state in retaking the prison came under scrutiny, with witnesses describing random automatic rifle fire being sprayed into a haze of teargas, with many prisoners and hostages alike being killed. In the following days, there were reports of prisoners being tortured and denied medical care in retaliation for the riot. In short, there was plenty of blame to go around.

There is plenty of history available describing all of the awfulness that took place on both sides for anyone interested in researching the story. But the lingering question that remains for many of us is why, after fifty years, the rest of that three-volume report is still sealed and being kept from the public. This isn’t some sort of national security issue where the sources and methods of intelligence agencies or the military could be compromised. It was a newsworthy (if awful) event that took place at a state-operated corrections facility funded by taxpayer dollars. The public should have a right to know what happened.

In fact, it’s difficult to understand why the report was ever sealed in the first place, to say nothing of keeping it sealed fifty years later. The only explanation that comes to mind is that the state was seeking to protect the guilty, many of who would almost certainly wind up being guards and other prison officials. (The guilt of the inmates was quickly established and made public.) But who are they protecting in the year 2021? Those events took place fifty years ago and everyone involved was already an adult at that point. All of the concerned parties would have to be at least in their seventies by now, if not well beyond, assuming that any of them are still even alive.

Both the riot and the subsequent retaking of the prison were marked by horrible acts of violence and a breakdown of the normal rules of order. If the state can’t provide some sort of coherent explanation as to how the information in the report could cause damage were it to be released at this point, the entire trove should be released immediately. And if there is some explanation for this ongoing secrecy, it had better be a good one. New York has just sworn in a new governor who has promised more openness, transparency, and an end to the corruption of the Cuomo years. The media should put this question directly to her and demand action.

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